Bishop of Durham speaks on amendments to Schools Bill

On 8th June 2022, the House of Lords debated the Government’s Schools Bill (HL) in its first day in committee. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate, on amendments to the first clause:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I have to declare my interest as chair of the National Society, which oversees Church of England schools, although obviously they are all devolved around each diocesan board. I also apologise that I cannot be here for days two and three in Committee. I have a long-standing family holiday booked, and my marriage and parenthood are more important. I assure noble Lords that things will be covered by other Members on these Benches.

I have been told clearly by Members of this House that I should be very concerned about Clause 1, and indeed Clauses 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and so on. Because of the nature of the people who have expressed those concerns, I listened very carefully. However, in principle I am persuaded that the move towards full academisation warrants the Secretary of State being given some additional powers. I disagree with a large number here: I think the direction of travel is abundantly clear. It is full academisation. If that is the direction of travel, we need to ensure that system is appropriately covered.

The Secretary of State has always had some powers. For example, because of the new Diocesan Boards of Education Measure, all dioceses have recently had to produce a new diocesan board of education scheme. Every single one of those has had to be submitted to the Secretary of State to sign off. Not in one instance has the Secretary of State asked any questions back of any diocese because, with the process that has been gone through, the schemes never landed on the Secretary of State’s desk until we knew that they would be happily signed off. So some powers already exist, and there is an argument that some need to exist in what is the emerging new system. We have to move away from the contract-by-contract basis that we are currently operating with academies. To put them all on a statutory basis makes complete sense.

That said, along with everyone else, I express deep concern about the way the clause is drafted. Oddly, it is both too loose—what are “examples” in legislation?—and too prescriptive and interfering. Somewhere, that balance has gone completely skew-whiff in the way it is worded.

Clear boundaries need to be established. I have looked and thought very carefully and, contrary to the noble Lord, Lord Young, I think that the Amendment 1 is correct in saying “must”, but it has to then go with Amendments 3, 6, 9 and 13—and possibly Amendment 11, which is in a different group. We need it clearly stated, and these seem very clear around what standards should be set—and then they will leave academies free in all the ways in which we have said that they need to be free to set a lot of their policies.

I hope that the Minister and the whole team will be open to taking these amendments and the concerns raised seriously and that they will return on Report with a very different Clause 1. I hear what was said about not returning to Report until the autumn, and I think that is very wise advice.

Hansard

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for something he said in his speech that helped me understand why I am more half-hearted in my support than others. I hope he will forgive me if I misquote him, but he implied that there had been no thought about areas that could be badly affected, including faith schools, until later. Actually, the Secretary of State and the Minister have been incredibly helpful and supportive in discussions with us about some of the later clauses. The department recognised that there are growing issues connected with voluntary-aided and voluntary-controlled schools and the move to MATs, which need to be dealt with and must be dealt with by legislation. Our experience has been of working behind the scenes with Ministers and officials in a very positive and helpful manner. That perhaps explains why we approach it more positively. 

Therefore, I say thank you and completely support the noble Lord’s Amendment 27A on the same basis—that these schools should have the protections.

However, picking up the concerns I expressed earlier about the overreach of the Secretary of State’s powers proposed here, I support the thrust and purpose of Amendment 2. The period is possibly too long but that is debatable. It is a proposal that helps to protect. It enables others from the sector to engage with us and for us all to express our opinions about proposed regulations, so that those regulations can be properly debated, the report can come back and the regulations can be amended. Amendment 2 is a really helpful proposal in principle, to assist with the restriction of the Secretary of State’s power.

Hansard

Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Barran (Con): As the academy system evolves, it also allows the Secretary of State to make necessary changes that will strengthen the regulatory framework in future. The power in this clause is restricted and cannot make provision about the designation of selective academy grammar schools or alter their selective admission arrangements. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked for clarification in relation to Clause 1(6). Although the clause as drafted prevents the Secretary of State removing admission arrangements from grammar schools via secondary legislation, it would of course be open to a future Government to change the law on selection via primary legislation; nor can it amend the provisions of this Bill which relate to governance, collective worship and religious education in those academies that have a religious character. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for his very kind remarks about working with the department and the Secretary of State.

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